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369. Corners of the mouth (VII)

It is common to confuse empathy and sympathy; and even to confuse which sex predominantly offers each response. If you ask most people today, I am willing to bet that they will say women are empathetic whereas men are not. In fact, men almost exclusively offer empathy—the deeper emotion—and women mostly offer sympathy. The reason people are confused about this is partially ideological confusion where the left characterises itself as “empathetic” whereas the right is cast as “psychopathic” or “narcissistic”— actually two contradictory conditions, but never mind.

The confusion easily arises because sympathy is more obvious than empathy; it is emoted and it is often offered, in a pathological form, for public consumption more than private response. Sympathy also feels more immediately comforting, despite being more superficial. If you come in after working in the snow all day hacking up a dead tree—blistering your hands and generally experiencing discomfort—it is a woman who will offer you a cup of tea and say: “Oh, you’ve had such a hard day.” This is sympathy and it is immediately apparent that this is what women offer. If you entered a hut with male colleagues you might be offered, in a sort of grudging way, a mug of tea. And that would be more down to socialisation as regards cordial relations in public, manners, than any actual desire to put the tea on.

So sympathy is superficial; even the phrase “tea and sympathy” smacks of the superficial help you might get from a vicar or some female relatives after your last parent died. Empathy is something a lot deeper; and personally I doubt women can really be empathetic. Empathy requires a person to have a definite sense of self; if you do not know your own self you cannot understand someone else, otherwise your emotions will become enmeshed with theirs. Buddhists say women are soulless and Christians tend to agree; and this is because women have a weak to non-existent sense of self, a fact related to their narcissism. Women have been bred to be sympathetic; they will be sympathetic if their bruiser boyfriend kills a man for his wallet, “Oh, you were cut; let me have a look. It’s so dangerous what you do.” A man is more likely to try to work out why anyone would commit such a futile crime.

To be empathetic requires you to be logical and rational, although this is not the impression you would get from the way it is talked about today—you would think empathetic people are emotionally labile. But empathy means to reconstruct another person’s mind in your mind so that you understand why they act and feel as they do; in order to do this, since their mind is opaque, you have to infer quite a few details—and this means the better you are at logic, the more empathetic you are.

While some assumptions made by people will always be opaque, it is possible to pretty well work out what motivates someone and what they feel about it; even if you conclude, as in the case of the mugger above, that their motives and assumptions are stupid. It is even possible to imagine someone who is very empathetic but not sympathetic: you might understand the other person very well but have no inclination to make reassuring noises to them; perhaps you empathise with them so well you feel very little sympathy for them.

In politics, the left is sympathetic—it offers nice reassuring statements about world events—and the right is empathetic; the right understands the left’s viewpoint and tries to accommodate it, “We understand there’s a lot of inequality and we think realistically we could do…”. Ironically, this gives the left the advantage: the left has little to no ability to understand where the right is coming from; they just think the right is mean, unempathetic (they mean unsympathetic). Consequently, the right gets steamrollered by uncompromising sympathetic people whose position they empathise with.


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